Near a small village on a Southeast Alaska island known as the "Fortress of the Bears," a state-sponsored hunt to kill grizzlies lured to the local garbage dump was underway this week. The dump on the edge of the remote village of Angoon, 55 miles southwest of the state capital, Juneau, has been a bear attraction for decades.
Its dump bears are considered something of a tourist draw in the style of Yellowstone National Park prior to 1970, though Angoon doesn't get a lot of tourists. The only way in is by boat or airplane. A state ferry visits twice a week most of the year. Floatplanes fly into a seaplane base on Kootznoowoo Inlet. There has long been talk of building a runway to provide more reliable air service, but to date it is just talk.
The bears, on the other hand, are very real. In Angoon, they are both attraction and nuisance. Everyone is aware of the potential danger. Just across Chatham Strait on Chichagof Island, a Sitka, Alaska, man was killed and eaten by a grizzly earlier this fall. Still, no one worries much about the danger.
Bear attacks on Admiralty Island -- as in most places in Alaska -- are rare, and on those rare occasions when a bear has become a problem in Angoon, the problem has been taken care of locally. Troopers spent days in the fall of 2010 investigating the deaths of two bears killed at the dump. There are no indications anyone was ever charged in those shootings.
And now the troopers are back -- only this time in a much different capacity.
Two of them were dispatched to Angoon to kill bears at the end of October. Why is unclear. Troopers, as is often the case in Alaska, weren't answering questions. Trooper Sgt. Matthew Dobson, one of the troopers sent to the island, was reported to be unavailable. His supervisor, trooper Lt. Steve Hall, was said to be out of the office. Trooper Maj. Steve Bear did not return phone calls. Neither did wildlife trooper division director Col. Gary Folger.
Danger to the community?
Doug Larsen, the regional wildlife director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Southeast Alaska, did offer some official insight into what was going on in Angoon.
"I don't know specifically," he said, but apparently there had been a variety of reports about a problem bear in the community. That animal, he said, was rumored to have ranged beyond the dump and into town.
"The thing I heard was that it had broken some windows, in vehicles at least," he said. "The fact is it was causing damage ... property damage."
Fish and Game is responsible for managing grizzly bears on Admiralty and across most of Alaska. State troopers -- both those who patrol the state's highways and those who enforce hunting and fishing laws -- work for a different agency, the Department of Public Safety. Larsen said wildlife troopers told his staff about what was happening in Angoon and were given the go-ahead to kill a bear or bears if they were a danger to the community.
"This would be one of those situations that warrant taking the bear out," Larsen said.
But a couple of retired troopers who just happened to be in Angoon on a hunt for Sitka blacktail deer when the operation went down wonder about that. Retired Capts. Wayne Fleek and Frank Sharp wrote this in an e-mail to Dispatch:
"On Oct. 30th Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters ordered two wildlife troopers to take their patrol vessel, P/V Sentry, from Juneau to Angoon and 'kill every bear they see.' This was in direct response to a telephone call from state Sen. Albert Kookesh requesting this action a day or two prior. Kookesh knew ADF&G had just issued the City of Angoon a permit to kill a 'nuisance bear' at the Angoon garbage dump (one of five allowed annual permits.) (But) Kookesh then notified the community not to shoot the bear themselves that the Troopers were coming to do it."
Fleek, subsequently reached by telephone in Angoon, said he got his information from troopers on the scene. Kookesh, reached by telephone in Juneau, largely confirmed his involvement. He said Angoon's mayor asked the governor's office to do something about the situation for a month, but nothing happened so he got involved. The bear was a problem, Kookesh said. "It even tried to get into my house," he said.
A simple process
The city of Angoon does have a state permit allowing it to shoot problem bears, he said, but if a village public safety officer does that, the officer is required to skin the bear and give the hide to the state. The state sells the hides at auction. Skinning a bear is a lot of work for an experienced hunter. For someone lacking experience, the task can take hours.
If troopers shoot the bear, the process is simpler. They can just dump the carcass, Kookesh said. "That doesn't sound right to me," he added, but Fleek said the troopers in Angoon told him that was what they planned to do. And Larsen said troopers do have the legal authority to dispose of the bear in just about any way they want.
"The sad thing is, what makes this even sadder, is that it's my understanding there's no intention to salvage the bear," Fleek said. Hunters are willing to pay Alaska big-game guides up to $20,000 for a chance to shoot a trophy grizzly. He thought it unconscionable to throw away the hide of such a valuable animal.
Fleek also questioned the state plan to go bear hunting at night. The risks of wounding the bear in that situation are high, he said, and that presents all sorts of new dangers. "No one wants to track a wounded bear," he said.
Larsen admitted that in a similar situation state wildlife biologists might think about snaring the bear first. When doing bear research, foot snares are often used to capture bears so they can be darted with a tranquilizer gun before being radio-collared and released. A foot snare in this case would enable troopers to eliminate the danger of a wounded bear escaping a shooting. Larsen did not know if the idea of snaring was ever considered, he said, because Fish and Game was never asked to help out in Angoon.
Kookesh said troopers spent two days on bear watch there before finally giving up. Their boat broke down in Angoon, Fleek said. And "they couldn't find the bear," Kookesh said. So the troopers went back to the capital city.
Just your average bear?
Fleek said the whole thing seemed like nonsense to him. A 24-year-veteran of wildlife protection in Alaska, he said that while the bear might have been more aggressive than normal in seeking out food people left in vehicles or entryways, there was no indication the bear was dangerous.
"Bears wander into town all the time," he said. "It's common all over (rural) Alaska from Brower Point up in Barrow to Ketchikan. I've heard of no false charges by this bear, or huffing and puffing, or anything like it. I've seen them here for years, and my friend who lives around here have seen them here for years.
"That's part of living out here. Everybody knows they're there. It's a common thing."
Residents of rural, predominately Alaska Native communities full of subsistence hunters and fishermen are used to dealing with bears, and any problem animals that do pop up, he added.
As usual, he and Sharp noted in their e-mail, "there have been five or six bears feeding at the open pit dump all summer and fall, and occasionally wandering near the community. The dump is located 2 miles from Angoon, has no fences and is open to dumping 24/7. Residents have been dealing with this dump and attracting bears by dumping food items, deer carcasses, fish and non-edibles for 30 years and usually kill the (problem) bears themselves, normally without reporting it."
Guarding the dump
The duo questioned why the state sent two troopers to deal with a what appeared to be a non-issue. They called it a waste of money and resources.
"Last night they sat at the dump well into the night with rifles, but the biggest bear, probably 9 feet, entered the area twice, each time detecting the trooper presence and running off before they could shoot it," they wrote. "This bear is no threat to humans as its actions to elude (people) proved."
If there is a problem, the two men added, it is with the dump. Larsen was forced to agree with that, as was Phil Mooney, the area wildlife biologist in Sitka. Bear-proofing the Angoon dump was identified as a bear management goal more than a decade ago, the wildlife biologists noted, but nothing has ever been done. Many rural dumps in Alaska are now surrounded by electric fences to keep bears out. Not the dump in Angoon.
Mooney said the money has never been available to fix the dump. But Fleek and Sharp noted that the money is there to send out a couple of troopers from the city to shoot bears.
"We wonder, given the timing, if this isn't just a re-election maneuver of the senator pressuring the commissioner for action," they said in their email.
Kookesh said he was just trying to get troopers to do for the citizens of Angoon what they do for the residents of Alaska's major cities. State officials shot a large, boar grizzly in an Anchorage suburb just the other day because it was banging on doors. It was not the first bear they'd shot in Anchorage this year. They did, however, salvage the hide. That is policy when a bear is shot by employees of the Department of Fish and Game. Larsen admitted to a bit of surprise wildlife troopers planned to dump a bear if they shot it. Bear hides should be in prime condition this time of year.
Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org